Admitting our follies and mistakes is already hard, and it becomes even harder when people treat us differently as a result, but what does the Bible say for when we really mess up?
“Once when I told my story at a missions conference, a woman informed me I had a demon,” wrote George Verwer, international director of Operation Mobilization.
“Most people don't want to hear Christian leaders admit their sins or say they still, on occasion, sin. And almost no one wants to hear a leader say he's come to terms with his sinful nature. But I have. And I say so publicly.
“I wouldn't call my temptation by pornography an addiction. My exposure to it has been infrequent. I don't look at it online. I won't pay for it. And I haven't had regular access to the magazines since I was a teenager. Over the years, I can honestly say, I haven't gone looking for pornography. It comes to me…. A defining moment for me occurred more than 30 years ago as I was walking in the woods outside London. From a distance I saw something hanging in the branches of a tree. It was a pornographic magazine, shot through with bullet holes. Someone had hung it there for target practice. Suddenly, I was the target.
“I wish I could say I destroyed that magazine and got the victory, but the truth is, in the woods that day, that magazine made a fool out of me. I was in the woods for quite a while after my lustful episode before I could crawl my way back to the cross and ask for forgiveness. Most of the time since then, I have been able to withstand Satan's temptations. I wish I could say that was true every time, but I'd be lying.
“And, in the woods, I found a new approach to my own sinfulness: when I sin, I ask forgiveness. Time after time.
“What is victorious living for the sinner? The absence of sin? The defeat of Satan at every temptation? Going undefeated for a whole season? If that's the measure, then I fail. And, I suspect, we all fail, and we will continue to fail without relief.”
Breaking the Superiority Complex
Living as a victorious Christian is impossible if—if—our definition of victory is living without sin. Yes, we work against sin, and Christ’s followers should show some visible markers of this work, but this is not the same as perfection. Unfortunately, this definition of victory isn’t what most believers have been told to expect in themselves or demand from others, as demonstrated by some woman telling George Verwer that he’s demon-possessed because he struggles with lust on occasion.
Maybe we wouldn’t go so far as to claim another Christian who errs is possessed, but there are certain sins that we tend to judge more harshly than others and this can spill over into some plain old condemnation.
Quite frankly, even Jesus’ own disciples fell into this mentality with one another.
“An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side and said to them, ‘Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.’ (Luke 9:46-48, ESV).
The whole crew is sizing up each other and fighting about who is better than the others. Jesus knows full well how they’re justifying their little internal hierarchy.
Hey, at least I’m not Levi; he was a tax collector with shady friends and money he probably took from poor people. Didn’t Jesus just talk about how the poor will inherit the kingdom of God? He can count himself out then. (see Luke 5:27-32 and 6:20-26)
So Christ uses an illustration with a little kid to rebuke them. Children mess up a lot, and they’re comically bad at hiding their mistakes. How often have mothers eyeballed their wee offspring and said something along the lines of “Jee, I wonder who drew this crooked smiley face on the wall, two feet up from the baseboards in our home office. And they used pink crayon. Must’ve been your father.”
We’re called to come to God like a child and to live out of the knowledge that those who might count as ‘least’ could be the greatest in heaven. It may feel counterintuitive, but that’s important for those of us tempted to feel superior to ‘sinners’ around us.
Not One to Abandon the Wounded
David Wilkerson wrote about Psalm 107 where God reaches out to believers who have gotten themselves in trouble. He divides struggling Christians into four camps and shows how the verse addresses them.
1. The Starving and Alone
“Without regular fellowship among a true body of believers,” David wrote, “Christians can end up cold, leaving their first love, wandering around continually thirsty. Some end up sampling unhealthy doctrines, while others end up isolated and bitter.
2. The Willfully Disobedient
“When a person sins willfully, disobeying the Word of God, his tendency is to hide, cower in fear and wallow in misery…. When you're in that kind of condition, the devil will whisper to you, ‘There is no hope for you. You’re one of those people who never change. Your sin has forced God to hide his face from you.’
3. In Foolish Trouble
“Many Christians are paying a high price for their past acts of foolishness…. The despair of many such Christians is unspeakable. They feel helpless, on the verge of giving up. One man wrote to me, ‘I feel like my life is over. There’s nothing I can do. I just look forward to death.’ ‘They drew near to the gates of death” (107:18).
4. Swamped by the Storms
“Businesspeople and career people are like seamen in ships. The great waters signify the big world of competition, an ocean of activity. Suddenly, a storm breaks out that is beyond their control, waves of problems threatening to swallow their boat. ‘Their soul melts because of trouble’ (107:26).”
“Beloved, you don’t have to live without hope…. Here is God’s answer to that. ‘Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and He saved them out of their distresses. He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and broke their chains in pieces. Oh, that men would give thanks to the Lord for His goodness, and for His wonderful works to the children of men! For He has broken the gates of bronze, and cut the bars of iron in two’ (107:13-16).”
Some believers hold to the narrative that we can commit ‘mortal’ sins that can put our salvation in jeopardy or permanently relegate us to the position of a ‘lesser’ Christian. It’s hard — if not outright impossible — though, to justify that mentality when looking at verses like Psalm 107.
Our Sympathetic High Priest in Heaven
A troubled young man wrote to Billy Graham once, “Do you believe God has a plan for every person's life? I've messed up my life so badly that I can't even imagine God has any future for me. I'm in jail now, and the future looks pretty bad.”
No details were provided on what exactly happened or how long his potential sentence was. How much did he ‘deserve’ to be there? Who was hurt and how badly? Which laws were broken that landed him behind bars?
At that moment, all that mattered was if God still had any purpose for him.
Sadly, there are plenty of people who would tell him, “No. You passed over a line of no return, and now the consequences are insurmountable. If God does make an exception for you, it’ll be in a small way.”
Billy Graham, fortunately, had spent too much time reading his Bible to be one of these people. He wrote back, “Yes, God has a plan for our lives, but He also gives us the freedom to reject it or ignore it. When we do, however, we pay a price as I’m afraid you are discovering.
“You may have turned your back on God, but listen: He has not turned His back on you. That doesn’t mean He likes what you’ve done or pretends that it didn’t happen, but it does mean that He loves you, and that He wants to forgive you and put your feet on a different path. No matter what you’ve done, nothing is too great for God to forgive. The Bible says, ‘Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered’ (Psalm 32:1).
“But God not only wants to forgive you, He also wants to give you hope for the future. No, you can’t change the past and you can’t undo the wrong you have done. But with God’s help you can change the future! The Psalmist’s experience can become yours: ‘You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand’ (Psalm 16:11).”
We struggle. We fail frequently. God extends forgiveness. He puts us on our feet again. This battle will not be without casualties and sometimes far-reaching consequences, but he knows that.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).